Will Turkey Accelerate Granting Citizenship to Syrians after the Failed Coup?

Early this month, a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan announcing an initiative to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees caused widespread controversy in Syrian and Turkish circles alike. Recent events in Turkey may have accelerated the program, with the government now taking tangible steps towards the initiative, particularly as relates to prominent Syrian artists and those with special talents and scientific skills.

Despite ambiguity on which Syrians are entitled to citizenship, hundreds of Syrians with science qualifications have lined up in front of Turkish government buildings to submit their applications and science certificates per the government’s request. This comes in the wake of the government’s decision to accept applications from doctors, engineers, and teachers, which are currently in the first stage of review. 

These measures come in spite of the unstable security situation in Turkey after a failed coup led by segments of the Turkish army the evening of Friday, July 15. Further, a large segment of Turkey’s population opposes giving citizenship to Syrian refugees—as campaigns on Facebook and Twitter evince—and the three opposition parties reject the resolution. The Turkish newspaper Huriyet reported Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, president of the Republican People’s Party, saying: “It is a dangerous issue that exposes the path that the Turkish government treads upon.” He signaled that country officials do not demand specific professions or entrepreneurs, but rather it is the president deciding to grant citizenship to those who apply. In his opinion, it is a move designed to “give an advantage to the Justice and Development Party.”

Many Syrian refugees doubt the news and regard it as mere political maneuvering driven by domestic calculations. According to a member of the Assembly of Syrian Lawyers in Turkey, Urwa Soussi, the Turkish government has not yet issued clear laws to the public. However, after the president’s speech it has truly sped up citizenship procedures and chosen individuals with prominent skills, for example prominent Syrian mathematician Jamal Abu al-Ward and other well-known Syrian mathematicians. Accordingly, 14 people—seven of whom were doctors—were naturalized last week in Rihaniya, a city in the state of Antakya in the south of the country. Additionally, a meeting with a number of prominent Syrian artists took place in the state of Gaziantep where they were promised the chance to have their applications reviewed in the near future. Syrians report other similar situations across the country.

A Syrian human rights activist in southern Turkey acquainted with Turkish laws indicates that Turkey intends to start benefitting from Syrian expertise and is studying how to best capitalize on it. Turkish law, in accordance with a cabinet resolution, allows authorities to grant citizenship to those who offer distinguished services to the Turkish state in the fields of economics, science, or art, which helps explain the current measures.

According to measures outlined by the president in his latest speech, the activist explained that the Turkish authorities can lower the five-year residency period specified by the constitution to three. Moreover, authorities can modify the issue of military service as well as the language proficiency stipulation, which presents a major obstacle to a large portion of Syrians.

To many human rights lawyers, it is unlikely that full citizenship will be granted to all refugees, especially because their numbers are approaching three million according to official statistics, a number with the potential to cause major opposition. Nevertheless, authorities have confirmed repeatedly that every refugee’s file will be reviewed individually with the extent of the applicant’s impact on Turkish security in mind. Thus, anyone with a criminal record will be excluded.

Ibrahim al-Salim, one of the Syrian teachers in Antakya, stated that the Turkish supervisor who manages his school requested copies of all teachers’ identification cards (camlik) a few days ago along with their educational degrees. A number of others Syrians confirmed that they have received calls from Turkish authorities requesting their papers and diplomas.

Alternatively, a number of others have wondered about the authorities’ motivation for granting Syrians citizenship at this time, especially in light of the current turmoil. The opposition accuses authorities of attempting to buy votes for the ruling party, as most of the refugees in Turkey have declared support for Erdogan and his party. Meanwhile, on social media a number of Syrians have accused Turkey of capitalizing only on Syria’s experts, businessmen, scientists, doctors, separating them from their homeland in spite of the dire need for them there. Some have even spoken about the possibility that Turkish authorities will require citizenship recipients to renounce their Syrian nationality.

According to Syrian journalist Anis Abdallah, in light of Syrians’ current situation in Turkey, obtaining citizenship will give them access to many of the opportunities that they lost over the past few years, which will enable them to improve their living situations. He mentioned several examples of these advantages, the most important in his view being civic rights, safe living, child and spousal registration, and dealing with legal issues, which is something that Syrians have lost the ability to do, particularly those who call for political change. Furthermore, citizenship recipients will have greater opportunities to carry out investment projects, gain medical insurance, work, and study; however, they will also be obliged to meet all of their national responsibilities, such as paying taxes and defending the flag.

Abdallah confirmed that most of the Syrians that he knows have begun asking seriously about the possibility of gaining citizenship within a few years after immigrating. He explains that they are in need of a safe haven, especially given the dim prospects for a quick end to their country’s conflict.

Approximately 2.7 million Syrian asylum seekers live in Turkey, 10 percent of who live in refugee camps set up by the Turkish government. These Syrians are not subject to internationally recognized refugee laws; rather the authorities consider them to be “guests,” and has recently granted some of them work permits and the residency rights.

Given the current situation, the suffering that Syrians endure in neighboring states, and the difficulty they face moving to other countries, the hope that President Erodgan offers may be an opportunity for thousands of refugees to improve their living conditions. However, this will not distance them from political temptations in Turkey and may even expose them to security problems and increase hatred against them, particularly after the participation by some in the counter-coup movement and their support for the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Hosam al-Jablawi is a Syrian citizen journalist.

Image: Photo: Muhamed, a Syrian refugee boy, works at a small textile factory in Istanbul, Turkey, June 24, 2016. Picture taken June 24, 2016. To match Special Report EUROPE-MIGRANTS/TURKEY-CHILDREN REUTERS/Murad Sezer